MICHELLE EMBREE

The Piano Player

             It was frustration that led me out of the house. Frustration for every
detail of my life: leaky kitchen sink, broken bed frame, burned-out
porch light. These little things enraged me when they were not simply
overwhelming me.

             One night, pieces of plaster from the ceiling fell and cracked apart right on the
pages of one of my really-bad-unfinished-novels. If I didn’t leave the house, I
would have been forced to burn it clean to the ground.

             I had to get drunk. Forget every unfinished thing I knew. Forget every
unfinished conversation with unfinished lovers, every unfinished thought
provoking every other unfinished thought. Frustration grabbed me; dragged
me, angry and self-loathing into the city. Into the night that would
introduce The Piano Player to my life.

             I stepped into the bar where he was sitting.

             Into the world where he was living.

             “Hey . . . can you play Piano Man? You know, that Billy Joel song?” The
whitest man in the world spoke without the slightest hint of irony.

             “What? Look, I’m trying to take a break here,” said another man in an
amber colored shirt, waving a dismissive arm.

             I sat two stools away.

             The man in the amber shirt was obviously The Piano Player.

             Who else would not be taking requests?

             “Billy Joel?” He said to himself, throwing his hands up briefly.

             He slugged back a shot of liquid the same color as his shirt. He was silently
arguing with himself as he motioned for another drink. I understood. I understood
completely and was immediately aroused.

             “I’ll have what he’s having and give him another,” I told the bartender.

             “I’ll never get out of this place,” The Piano Player spoke half to me and half to
himself.

             “Um . . . isn’t that a line from that Billy Joel song?”

             He snapped his head my direction, making eye contact with me for the first time. He
evaluated me alongside my comment. The bartender set both of our drinks in front of
us. The Piano Player smiled.

             “Cheers, darlin’.”

             By the end of his second set, I was drunk. In puddles of myself, really, around the
barstool I was sitting on. The really-bad-unfinished novel was still on my mind,
but I didn’t care about it the moment The Piano Player sat down next to me.

             “They always want to hear what they already know. Too dangerous, otherwise.”

             “Fuck ‘em.” I was drunk. Decidedly and serenely messy.

             “No-one appreciates art anymore,” he said.

             “No-one ever did,” I said, holding my fingers up for two more shots. “Only artists
appreciate art. Everyone else wants something they can swallow. Dissect and
swallow.”

             The Piano Player looked into me. His gray eyes charged by the thought, I assumed, of
his unfinished, never to be finished desires. Ten years dropped from his face and
he smiled at me.

             “Do you play?” He asked.

             “No. I write about people who play. Or, I should say, people who would play, if
they were real.”

             We took our shots holding one another’s gaze.

             “Let’s get out of here,” he said.

             This is lust.

             We stumbled in a tangle of small talk that would have been annoying had we been
paying attention to anything other than the sex we were about to have.

             “This is where I’m staying.” The Piano Player pointed to a row of motel rooms under
a lighted sign shaped like a heart with an arrow through it. Couldn’t have written
a better scene myself, I thought, knowing eventually I would indeed write a better
scene.

             “You want to come in? I have some beer iced in the bath tub.” He leaned back on his
heels pretending, as anyone would, that the certainty of our impending affair was
entirely uncertain.

             I held his eyes in mine longer than I should have. He dropped his chin searching
the toes of his boots for a reaction.

             “Oh . . . shut-up.” I pushed at his shoulder.

             We shared a quiet laugh between a mutual smirk. I knew then, The Piano Player would
be more than a one-night stand.

             The threshold of that nameless hotel was easy for me to cross. I put one drunken,
eager foot in front of the other and felt rescued, somehow, from the unfinished
ambiguity of my life.

             The Piano Player grabbed my hips with both hands, wedging me into his body and
kissed me. Deeply. Kissed me with a long mix of anger and desperation that I
understood more than I would have liked. I sunk my fingers into the back of his
neck and moved us toward the unmade bed. We were breathing heavy, half gone on the
escape of it all. The escape of sex. And though I did, technically, have sex with
The Piano Player that night, we would never truly become lovers.

             Morning came through the heart with its arrow and announced my hangover. I blinked
my eyes open. The Piano Player looked grumpy, shuffling through a canvas bag on the
floor. For a brief, sleepy moment I wondered if he could make me fall in love with
him.

             When The Piano Player noticed me watching, his face frowned. “I can’t find any clean
socks!” He said this as if he believed the socks were in some kind of conspiracy
against him. Then, confirming my notion, he launched into a rant about how he never
had any clean clothes or fresh food.

             He raved and paced as I dressed to conceal both my confusion and my whiskey
sickness. I leaned over to tie my boots, keeping an eye on the absolute density of
his dissatisfaction. I stood to leave, not knowing if I should kiss his forehead or
just wiggle my fingers at him and go.

             I turned toward the door, toward the impaled heart, he looked at me and softened,
mildly apologetic in form.

             “I just need to eat. That’s all.” The Piano Player searched my face for a flicker
of understanding.

             Wordlessly, I produced a blood red apple from my pocket and handed it to him. He
held the apple carefully between his fingers, looking from it to me.

             “Thank-you.” He was heavy with meaning. He reached out, held me against his boozed
body. It was an embrace warm and sincere enough that I would remain confused by him
for the short length of our affair.

             I didn’t see The Piano Player for a couple of weeks. Then, he showed on my doorstep
as if he’d been to my house a hundred times. He immediately started telling me what
I needed to do with, well, everything.

             After a lengthy discussion on my squeaking porch swing, my crumbling stone steps,
and the rusted pad lock on my cellar door he seemed to run out of things to say.
So, I invited him in. He continued telling me what he thought I should know.

             “See how this archway leans to the left? You need a shim over here, that will
redistribute the weight and make it even again.”

             “You need plumbers tape on these pipes. Metal pipes always need tape. I don’t care
what anyone says.”

             When he finished with these problems, I fed him. Shortly afterward I realized he
had, in fact, moved in. The Piano Player stayed for nearly two weeks. We ate. We
had sex. He moved through the space of my house either fighting with himself or
telling me how to fix things.

             We kept eating and sexing between talking about sex and politics and kitchens. We
talked about kitchens more than lovers really should. But like I said, we weren’t
really lovers. Something was missing. Something important was being overlooked.

             One day, I realized what was missing and immediately resisted its absence.

             The Piano Player was crouched in front of my open refrigerator, moving
things around.

             “This doesn’t belong here,” he said, shooting a pointed look at me.
“Yogurt belongs in the door, not on the shelf! And how can you just
leave the celery sitting on top of the cheese? It has to be in the
drawer. Otherwise, it goes limp.”

             I solved the puzzle in a quick instant. “Look at me,” I said.

             The Piano Player stood, graceful and stiff, looking me over.

             My change of stature from one of confused amusement to solid recognition
registered in his eyes as they met mine. Two tiny, golden snakes spun
his pupils and disappeared, leaving me with only his gaze.

             “You thought I was a little girl. For weeks now, you haven’t noticed...
I’m a grown woman. An adult even.”

             The Piano Player swallowed once, “I was just saying...”

             “No,” I cut him off. “Take the celery out of the drawer and put it back
on the cheese.”

             “That’s stupid.”

             “Do it.”

             “Why?”

             “Do it.”

             “No.”

             “Fine, I’ll do it myself.” I elbowed past him and, with exaggerated
effort, arranged the contents of the refrigerator to the way he had
found them.

             The Piano Player stayed at my house a couple of days more. He followed
me around, asking about every little thing on his mind.

             Should I put the rice on the top shelf?

             Does this jacket match these pants?

             Can I take this chair outside?

             Have you seen my shoes?

             He asked for his shoes over and over. Something about being in the
house of a grown woman rendered him incapable of finding his own shoes.

             I knew our ill-suited coupling could go on indefinitely. I knew it
could go on and on without, even, the distracting effects of sex. So, I
informed The Piano Player that I planned to fold up the house and move
on.

             The Piano Player looked lost and unhappy. Though, eventually, I would
learn tenderness toward those moments, they infuriated me as a present
tense.

             Since The Piano player wouldn’t, or couldn’t, pick-up his own things, I
gathered them in a sweeping rush and set them outside. The last items
being, of course, his shoes.

             “Oh, you found them,” he said dreamily, and was occupied by their
presence the entire time I spent folding up the house and leaving.


Michelle Embree grew up in a working-class suburb of St. Louis,
Missouri. She dropped out of high school during her freshman year and
worked in sandwich shops and mall stores for what seemed like forever.
Michelle eventually earned her BA in Sociology and Philosophy from the
small, classically oriented Mc Kendree College. After which, she ran
away with the circus where she learned to clown, eat fire and live out
of trash dumpsters. Michelle has recently completed her first novel,
Manstealing For Fat Girls, due out from Soft Skull Press in October
2005. She currently resides in New Orleans where she is working on her
second novel, Incinerated. That is, when she isn’t busy loving on her
constant companion, a Chihuahua mix named Mr. Pickles.








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